I grew up in a small town in the panhandle of Nebraska. I was raised by my grandmother. She took me in when I was five months old, and I lived with her until she passed away when I was 17.
We were always very poor and never had very much money. I learned to fish and hunt at an early age to help supplement our food supply. But there was never enough food. I remember one time when we went for three weeks with nothing to eat but bread and coffee. I also remember experiencing hunger pangs. We didn’t have a car, so we had no transportation. I hauled and chopped wood to keep the house warm. My free time was spent looking for pop bottles to sell for two cents apiece or gathering scrap aluminum, copper, and brass. All of this meant a little bit of money for our household.
My grandmother always worked very hard, but when she got older and wasn’t able to work, we relied on her Social Security income. We received $50 a month, out of which we paid $20 for rent and $10 for electricity. That left us very little to live on each month.
When I was about 12 years old, my grandmother got sick. She began to count on me to pay the bills and manage our household’s money. I would go to the grocery store and make all of the purchases and ensure we had enough money to live on for the month. It was difficult, but somehow we always managed to survive. In high school, I got a job that paid $1.25 an hour, and I could work up to 15 hours a week. This job doubled our household income. It was from these experiences that I learned to be very frugal and to manage every penny that we had.
Later on in life, when I came to work at the American Indian College Fund, I realized that it was important to maintain those values. I was always frugal, and became even more so at the College Fund. I wanted to make sure that there was money for the future. I always worried about how students were going to pay for an education. I used to think about Chief Red Cloud’s advice to our people when he was negotiating the treaty for the Black Hills. He said, “Never make a decision without considering the next seven generations into the future.”
I knew it was going to be important for the College Fund to try to save money and create a permanent endowment for students in the future. I kept thinking about those seven generations ahead. How could we help them? What would we need to do? I realized that by creating a permanent endowment we would always have money for students in the future, and we would be honoring the advice of Chief Red Cloud. The strategy was simple: We saved as much money as we could, and with the help of the board and staff, we were able to build an endowment from $5 million to its current value of $34.9 million.
At a very early age, I learned to manage money—and I think that this skill is important for our tribal college students. Even if you don’t have anything, you should be thinking about the future when you do have resources. You should plan how you will use those resources and prepare for those days ahead when the times will be tougher. Never give up and always think ahead.
Long-range planning has always been a very important part of the Indian way of life. On the Plains, our ancestors cached supplies for times when they were going to need extra food. More than 200 years later, some of those caches still remain undiscovered. We must learn how to take care of the resources, like those ancestors did, so that seven generations from now, our descendants will have the opportunity to receive a good education in a good way.
Richard B. Williams (Oglala Lakota/ Northern Cheyenne) has been the president and CEO of the American Indian College Fund since October 1997. During his tenure, the organization has raised more than $210 million in donations for scholarships for American Indian students.